France: Less Work, More Time Off

How The French Get Months Off Without Taking A Pay Cut

Americans at home may still be eating freedom fries, but corporate America is buying into France.

"They come in France because they know that infrastructure is first-rate and that people are working very well in France, especially engineers," says Marchand. "We are probably one of the two or three countries in the world with the best engineers. And so in terms of technology, France is still a country that is taken very seriously by the American executives."

Some of those American executives savor the French approach to work. Katherine Melchior Ray left behind her job as a senior manager at Nike in the United States, and came to France to work in the French fashion industry. Her job is just as high-powered, but now that she's in France, she no longer works weekends, and vacation has taken on a whole new meaning.

"I don't check in, I don't check my e-mail. I don't call on the phone and no one expects me to," says Ray. "You really go on vacation."

France is still one of the world's five largest economies. When the French work, their productivity per hour is among the highest in the world, even better than in the United States. Problem is, French workers are on the job an average of 300 hours less per year than their American counterparts, so French economic growth lags far behind the United States.

"People understand very well that the French system will not survive long if it's not reformed," says Marchand. "People have to work more; for years people thought that they could work less and earn more, which is -- absurd."

Marchand says other countries in Europe are already moving in the other direction, increasing the work week without raising salaries. And France has made some minor reforms in its 35-hour work week, to allow some paid overtime. It's a question of economic survival.

"Germans are showing us the way. Germany companies are saying to their employees, 'OK, you renounce the 35-hour week or we take your jobs and we send them to Hungary, Poland, if not China," says Marchand.

"So there should be huge political support then to change it," says Logan.

"There is not a huge political support to change it," says Marchand. "It's seen as a sort of entitlement now."

So no French politician would even dare to suggest fundamental reform, like trimming those guaranteed five weeks of vacation. And Ray has been won over. She's talked herself into the idea that the French way of working – rather, not working - translates into good economic sense.

"People came back and it was like everyone had had 10 shots of espresso, they were just ready to go," says Ray. "They were like Eveready bunnies, everyone was going together and there was a team work that was inspiring."

Ray says she also takes her five weeks of vacation: "It feels great."